Salty sets career-high with 17th HR

BOSTON -- At first glance, you'll see that the New York Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox 10-8 on Friday night in the first game of a four-game weekend series at Fenway Park.

A closer look, however, and you could see how Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia has come into his own. He's making it easy to notice that the organization made the right decision to acquire him via trade and have him develop under Jason Varitek.

And, yes, it took a loss to the Yankees on Friday to fully understand and appreciate Salty's contributions this season, the first without Varitek behind the plate in some capacity since 1997.

When Varitek took over as the Sox's full-time catcher in 1999, he was 27 years old. He hit .269 with 20 homers and 76 RBIs that season. Saltalamacchia turned 27 on May 2 and he's currently at .244 with 17 homers and 41 RBIs.

On Friday, after the Sox fell behind 5-0 in the top of the first, Saltalamacchia's three-run homer in the bottom half of the inning tied the game at 5-5. He set a career high in home runs when that shot landed in the right-field seats, surpassing last season's mark of 16.

His 17 homers are the most by a Red Sox catcher before the All-Star break since Carlton Fisk had 18 in 1973. Pudge finished with 26 homers and 71 RBIs that season.

Speaking of All-Stars, it's inconceivable that Saltalamacchia is not an All-Star this season, especially with the offensive tear he's been on of late. He has belted four homers in the past eight games and six in the past 15.

The Red Sox's longest-tenured player in Boston, David Ortiz, said after Friday's loss that he's seeing strong similarities between Saltalamacchia and Varitek.

"Great, man," Ortiz said of Saltalamacchia. "This game is a learning process and he's learning and once you learn, you never forget. I talked to him the other day and he said, 'I watch all of you guys hitting and I've learned from it. I see you're not trying to always pull the ball and you're trying to stay through the ball and I'm trying to do the same thing.' There he is."

Red Sox newcomer Nick Punto never had Varitek as a teammate in the big leagues, but he played against him plenty of times. When Punto arrived on the scene in Boston and saw how Saltalamacchia prepared himself, he knew the Red Sox had the right guy behind the plate to replace the retired captain.

"Those are really big shoes to fill," Punto said. "Varitek was a great player here for a lot of years and Salty's really coming into his own. You can see it offensively that he's becoming a more mature hitter. He has a lot of raw power, too. This field suits him well with the Monster. It's fun, too, to watch him dissect hitters and he loves talking baseball. He's a very mature player -- a guy you want on your team."

Saltalamacchia made his presence felt with his defensive play, too.

The combination of a heads-up play by Punto at second base, and Saltalamacchia's willingness to block the plate in a Varitek-esque move in the top of the fifth inning, prevented Alex Rodriguez from scoring what would have been the go-ahead run. Instead, A-Rod was out and the game remained knotted at 6-6 before Boston gained a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the inning.

"I felt it was a big out to get if we could get it and the only time you can get that play is if you get a line drive when the guy at third base has to freeze, and A-Rod froze a little bit," Punto said. "You fire it over there and hope you get him."

Punto got him because Saltalamacchia stretched out his left leg to block the plate.

"That's instincts," Punto said. "He's a good enough catcher to know. He's played with Adrian [Gonzalez] and Adrian makes those plays, so you just read that play, watch it develop and everything moves pretty quick but [Salty] was right there."

In a Saltalamacchia-style move, he quickly exited the ballpark after Friday's loss, partly because he knew he would have to answer questions about his 17th homer of the season. To him, like Varitek, it's not about personal achievements. It's about wins and losses and on Friday the Red Sox lost.

The only thing missing was a glove to the face of Rodriguez and a walk-off win for the Red Sox (flash back to July 24, 2004).